ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – New Mexicans with cannabis-related charges are seeing their cases re-evaluated. Many of those charges are likely to be expunged from the records, but some people involved raise questions about the process.
Last year, New Mexico lawmakers legalized the use and sale of recreational cannabis. Lawmakers also passed an accompanying bill to automatically expunge criminal records related to cannabis that are no longer illegal now that cannabis use is permitted.
Now, district attorney offices across the state are taking a look at those criminal records. Many will be expunged, but district attorneys will also challenge some of those expungements.
A large number of the cases under review are located in Bernalillo County, which isn’t surprising given the relatively large population of Albuquerque and surrounding areas.
The 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s office is currently reviewing thousands of records for expungement: “We have reviewed over 11,527 cannabis-related cases potentially eligible for automatic expungement in our district,” said spokesperson Lauren Rodriguez.
They say they’re also objecting to some of the expungements. That includes cases where people were charged with possession of relatively large amounts of cannabis.
“We are objecting to automatically expunging 53 convictions where individuals either transported more than 100 pounds of cannabis or distributed cannabis to a minor,” said Rodriguez. “This amounts to an objection rate of 0.45%.”
Other judicial districts are also reviewing cases for expungement. KRQE News 13 reached out to each district attorney’s office in the state. Not every office returned our call, but the ones that did each say they were looking at records of offenders.
The 11th Judicial District, in northwest New Mexico, says they have 1,608 cases filed for an expungement. The 5th Judicial District, in southeast New Mexico, says they have 265 cases spread across Eddy, Chaves, and Lee Counties.
Down in Doña Ana County, they’re working on 312 cannabis cases. And in a press release, they say they’re looking at charges as far back as 1997.
The expungement process began last year when the New Mexico Department of Public Safety tallied up a list of cases potentially eligible for expungement. They submitted lists to each district attorney across New Mexico who can then review and object to the expungement. If the attorneys want to object, they must make their reasoning clear at a court hearing. The court then makes the final decision.
The Department of Public Safety says they initially tallied 151,640 cases across the state for review. As for how many will ultimately be expunged, that’s up to the courts, they say.
While the expungement process was originally set up to be relatively automatic, some people involved in the process are unsure exactly how smoothly that will happen. After all, re-examining cases from years past might not be an easy process.
“There is a big question of how this process will work in court and how the individuals whose cases are being objected to will be notified,” explains Adrianne Turner, the general counsel for the New Mexico Law Offices of the Public Defender. “Right now, their last known attorney is supposed to be notified. That is problematic because some of those attorneys are now prosecutors, deceased, retired, or have moved out of state.”
“We are receiving notice of some of the objections, but there is no clear process we are supposed to follow, including how or if we tell our former clients,” Turner says. “So that leaves a lot of questions and confusion.”
Turner adds that they’re watching this ongoing process with the hope that it gives everyone a “fair opportunity to be heard.” And Turner says that they’re concerned there might not be a standardized way in which prosecutors are reviewing or objecting to expungements across the state.
“What we have started to see is that there might be some differences in how prosecutors across the state are objecting to expungements,” Turner told KRQE News 13. “Your right to a cannabis expungement should not be based on who your local prosecutor is.”
KRQE News 13 called the New Mexico Administrative Office of the District Attorneys to ask if there are safeguards in place for people whose expungements might be challenged. They did not answer our calls.